Montana’s farms and ranches are the lifeblood of our rural economies. They are in every rural community in Montana, using local suppliers, paying local labor, generating income that is spent in local stores and growing healthy and affordable food for local communities, the state and the world.
Right now, Montana’s agricultural industry is also facing its most difficult economic outlook in years. Nationally, net farm income is down 52 percent from only five years ago and is headed towards a 12-year low.
The challenges facing Montana’s farms and ranches are reflected in the slow economic growth throughout rural Montana. Many of the state’s rural counties are maintaining unemployment rates that are higher than that of the state as a whole, and a few counties are at more than double the state average.
The response to these challenging times seems simple. The more we can do to support the vitality of Montana’s farmers and ranchers, the stronger our rural economies will be.
Since the Dust Bowl, farm bill conservation programs have served as a critical source of support. Funding from farm bill conservation programs goes directly into the hands of Montana’s farmers and ranchers. It helps them make improvements that sustain the overall health of their lands and strengthen their businesses. The funding often results in long-term cost savings and improved efficiency.
The total impact of the conservation funding can be multiplied several times over. As discussed above, stronger farms and ranches mean stronger rural communities. Moreover, improved conservation efforts on family farms and ranches sustain the natural beauty and wildlife of the entire state, supporting the resources that draw people to our state to participate in our growing outdoor recreation economy.
Federal conservation funding also draws matching funds from local governments, non-profits and other groups — all interested in protecting the long-term sustainability of our land and rural economies. And, communities can use the funding from farm bill conservation programs to avoid unnecessary government regulation by proactively engaging in efforts to protect our land, water and wildlife habitat.
In 2016 alone, the federal government allocated nearly $100 million to Montana’s farms and ranches through farm bill conservation programs. More than two-thirds of this funding, or around $72 million, was spent on improvements to working farms and ranchers throughout our state.
Congress is now in the process of reauthorizing the farm bill and its conservation programs. It is essential that in doing so, Congress protect funding for these programs that not only represent an essential and significant investment in Montana’s farms and ranches, but an investment directly into the heart of our rural communities.